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SPIE Professional January 2010

The Good Word(s)

Companies with good internal communications can build confidence during tough times and keep employees focused on moving forward.

By Paul Palmer

In an economy which generally has seen revenues in decline, some employers have managed to accomplish amazing things. Their key to reaching or even surpassing ambitious goals during a downturn is relatively simple: effective communication.

Effective corporate communication inside the workplace is an invaluable tool to improve morale, identify fresh ideas, and help shape corporate strategy. Communication methods among these employers are varied, but all make a concerted effort to attain their business goals.

Ocean Optics employees
 Ocean Optics employees in the company's Florida lab are encouraged to ask questions within their work group and at company-wide meetings. Photo courtesy of Ocean Optics.

"We try to have a three-prong approach to our communication strategy," says Rob Randelman, president of Ocean Optics, an SPIE corporate member company specializing in spectroscopy and photonic instruments and optical sensing. "We aim for transparency with employees, open forums where anything is open for discussion, and we always have something employees can digest on their own."

Jay KumlerJay Kumler, president of Jenoptik Optical Systems (formerly Coastal Optical Systems) and a new member of the SPIE Board of Directors, says his strategy is to communicate more frequently and with more information.

"It's a pat answer, but it's true," Kumler says. "We have quarterly meetings and weekly job sheets. We give detailed access to everyone so they know what we are currently doing."

Here are some of the elements successful employers cite as critical in their strategies:

Be Straightforward

Employees are looking for straightforward, truthful answers to their questions. A common element in most successful communication strategies is conducting employee meetings. These regularly scheduled events provide an opportunity for the leadership to keep employees current on programs, progress, and the general business environment.

In the end, the effectiveness of these meetings hinges on developing opportunities to answer employees' questions and address their concerns. To solicit employee participation, companies use a variety of approaches ranging from an open forum to question boxes where employees can submit questions confidentially. Regardless of the particular format used, in an informal survey of CEOs, the level of straightforwardness and honesty correlate highly with the effectiveness of these sessions.

Increase Face Time

"We try to schedule time in remote offices that don't correspond to any other activities like trade shows or customer events," Randelman says. Ocean Optics' corporate office and manufacturing facilities are in Florida but it does business out of offices in China and Europe. "This lets our leadership team be seen by our employees without other distractions."

Some CEOs suggested one way to increase face time around the office: locate executive offices in different parts of the building. This simple strategy requires leadership team members to walk the halls much more frequently on their way to meetings.

Seek Out "Tribal Leaders"

Knowing that communications are passed informally between employees is key to a successful strategy.

"Hoagies with Holly" is a program that Dave Holly, president of the Communication Test & Measurement business segment at JDSU, implemented years ago. It is an informal lunch with about eight people from different departments of the company. The participants change every month. No questions are considered off limits.

"I would rather they ask the tough questions so I can get the truth out in the open, rather than people making up their own stories." Holly says.

"Tribal leaders" is how Randelman describes this informal group of people. They are the key communication influencers in the office and/or manufacturing floor. Randelman's team at Ocean Optics seeks out these "tribal leaders" and uses them to help communicate informally to the rest of the team. Both Randelman and Holly agree that these small group meetings help prevent speculative rumors from spreading by correcting any misinformation on an informal basis.

Share Good News and Bad

People read newspapers, watch television and are generally knowledgeable about what is going on with the economy. A marketing manager from Georgia recently told me: "Just tell me the truth. Tell me what I can expect, and let me help be part of the solution."

The more the employees know about the state of the business, the more they understand why certain decisions are necessary. Recently, Randelman posed questions regarding benefits and salary issues to his employees. The employees were able to provide input that helped the leadership team reach their decision. Randelman noted Ocean Optics has even posed questions about strategic company issues to all employees and asked them to provide comments.

Open New Avenues

An effective communication strategy takes investment. But whether it is increasing face time in remote locations or investing in capital equipment such as video conferencing technology, the effort does not go unnoticed by employees.

"We learned from the downturn in 2001," Holly says of JDSU's investment in a variety of communications methods. While some employees wondered what was afoot, the company proved to be ahead of the curve once the economy started to decline. JDSU, an SPIE corporate member, is committed—whether through video conferencing, increased face time with workers at all locations, or other means—to consistent and regular messaging in a variety of methods.

Ocean Optics made a similar commitment. "It helps my employees to know that at any time they can speak to me on Skype video conferencing even if it is just for a few minutes to resolve an issue or to strategize," Randelman says. "People appreciate the time and enjoy using the medium."

Keep Your Eye on the Future

Unfortunately, some companies have had to pursue staff reductions, pay cuts, furloughs, and shortened work weeks to survive the current downturn in the economy.

While necessary or even critical in the short term, companies with long-term vision and an eye on recovery have focused on developing an effective communication strategy. They know it is critical in building confidence and keeping their employees focused on moving the business forward.

Communication Workshop at Photonics West

Thomas Tongue, founder and CEO of Zomega Terahertz Corp., will give a talk on professional communication as part of a professional development speaker series at SPIE Photonics West 24 January.

In "Peaks and Pitfalls of Professional Communication: Tips from a Technical Entrepreneur," Tongue will cover ways to communicate with your professional network in a way that will effectively present your ideas and enthusiasm.

Tongue has master's degrees in physics and business and more than 14 years of experience in the software and photonics industries.

For more information about this speaker series and other resources for early career professionals, go to spie.org/ecp.

Palmer's Tips for Effective Communication

1. Keep the communication simple.

2. Communicate on a regular, frequent schedule. Frequency and consistency are important.

3. Seek out tribal leaders.

4. Increase the amount of face time with employees. Take a long walk around the office rather than a direct path.

5. Ask for employee input.

6. Answer the tough questions. Honesty is a necessity.

7. Use a variety of communication methods.

8. Demonstrate how decisions will impact the company.

9. Show the wins! It's not all bad news.

More Connections for SPIE Corporate Members

SPIE is increasing the number of individual memberships that come with an SPIE corporate membership from one to three.

This enhanced benefit means more value, more access to a key technical audience, and more opportunities to stay connected within the optics community.

SPIE corporate members may now designate three individuals with specific roles in the organization to represent and vote on behalf of the company. In addition to the primary member in the organization, two others involved with executive, engineering, or technical management will receive full benefits of individual membership. That includes subscriptions to the online journal s/he chooses and SPIE Professional magazine.

For more information: membership@spie.org.

Paul Palmer

Paul Palmer is founder and owner of Global Recruiters of Sarasota, FL (USA). He helps companies identify and hire talent in the photonics, optics, and test and measurement industries by matching company needs and goals with an individual's motivations, style, and abilities. He will be recruiting at SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing in April.

For more information, visit www.grnsarasota.com or call 941-714-0017 x 301.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201001.04

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